"Mother Superior" awaiting her cue backstage
The DEB and I have recently signed away our sanity, and joined the village Drama Group. As a result, earlier in the summer, I auditioned and was cast as one of the seven nuns in a production of “None The Wiser”. Ho, ho!
The play is gag-filled farce, about two female shoplifting gangs who disguise themselves as nuns, and hide out in a convent. Obviously, both sets of nuns think the other set are “the real thing”, and hope they won’t blow their cover.
The play was great fun. It was silly, contrived and over-the-top, and I loved every minute of it!
I have mentioned before that have I spent decades of my life training actors and directing: Shakespeare, Chekhov, Strindberg, you name it. But this production, placed me on the over side of the directing table, faced with a style of dramatic literature with which I am unaccustomed, and forced me to ask myself a very basic and fundamental question: “Can I be funny?”
This was in fact a real challenge for me, and taught me a great deal about British humour, how it works and why we love it.
Throughout the rehearsal process I found myself striving for realism and depth, when in fact neither of these were essential. That is not to say that our characters were caricatures and not real people, far from it.
I thought my “Sister Jean” was a fully-fleshed out character, with clear objectives and intentions, but the difference was the way in which the characters, and everything else, evolved.
The most important mechanics in our rehearsals were the skills of speed and lightness of touch. I found myself, in a rather American way, pushing the obvious, forcing the joke, when that is the opposite of what is needed, actually.
Of course, when I trained actors in the past, I stressed to them that a comic character doesn’t necessarily realize/realise that he or she is funny, that’s what makes us laugh. And this could not be more true than in the realm farce.
Incredible mishaps, uncanny near-scraps, and obviously mistaken identity are just a few of the features of farce to which actors and audiences alike must turn a willingly blind eye.
(Of course, none of this is new. Dare I say that Shakespeare was the Ray Cooney of his day?)
Whether it is a Carry On film, Ray Cooney romp, or Hyacinth Bucket’s antics on “Keeping Up Appearances”, there is something so distinctly British about farce – even though the French would argue that their man, Feydeau is the undisputed master of the form.
As Jude Law (*sigh*) once put it, “We Brits aren’t afraid to be a bit naughty.” Although Jude may have taken that maxim a bit too far in real life, I think he makes a valid point for the success of British humour on stage and screen.
Even the word itself, “naughty” makes me blush ever so slightly, and want to giggle a little. And that really is the essence of so much of British humour and farce. Yes, it can seem very dated and old-fashioned in some instances, but it can also be very, very funny.
The village Drama Group is gearing up for our next big project, the annual “Music Hall” which happens every November. And the sell-out shows for Music Hall are very naughty indeed!
The DEB and I went along to a Music Hall planning meeting last Friday. The goal of this meeting was to glean preliminary ideas for music numbers and musical sketches.
This involved a group of us crammed into the Drama Group secretary’s cosy living room, gathered round the piano, surrounded by dozens of lyric books, sheet music, and several bottles of Beaujolais and Pinot Grigio.
“I don’t sing.” I said flatly.
However, egged on by my very supportive drama group chums, once the Beaujolais kicked in, I found myself belting a rendition of “Don’t Tell Mama” from Cabaret!
I can only guess where all of this will lead. I have serious doubts whether I will have to guts to attempt a command performance before the entire village come November!
In the meantime, I am becoming more aware of how British farce, absurd as it can be, does in fact imitate British life.
“I haven’t seen you for days!” my dear friend Sally, wrote in a very serious email. “We must get together, you only live up the road! Must tell you, poor dear Minnie. She’s beside herself. As you know, her beloved Oscar is dying. Well, he’s going to be put to sleep tomorrow. Can’t even bear it. And poor Bettye’s had a fall, too.”
Sally’s message left me wracked with guilt. I’ve been such a bad friend, I thought to myself. I need to be better about staying on top of what happening in the village.
My heart broke to read about poor, sweet Oscar. He is such a lovely dog, and we have all been hoping that the tide would turn for him. Minnie will be so lost without him. Right, I thought to myself, this going to be rough for Minnie, she needs a bit of support.
I had a super busy day with work at Charlecote, and one thing and another. But managed to organise myself enough to run by Sainsbury’s to buy some sunflowers and a Sympathy card for Minnie; as well as a Get Well card and flowers for Betty.
I rushed home, sat down, penned my cards, and headed out to make deliveries around the village.
I walked to Minnie’s, deep in thought, pondering what on earth I would possibly say to offer her my support and comfort. “Just give her a hug.” I thought as I rang the bell.
After pressing the buzzer, I heard what was unmistakably, the sound of a dog barking. And not just any dog, it was Oscar.
My heart sank as I stood there, flowers and sympathy card in hand, realising I was there to offer my condolences for a pooch that was still very much with us.
So, I did what any other rational human being would have done in such a moment, I made a break for it!
Yes, I tried to run. But, this is farce, so, of course, any attempt at escape is futile.
Minnie called after me, in that familiar British way wherein my name is divided into four syllables with a long “s” sound in the middle. I stopped dead in my tracks. I closed my eyes and tried to think fast.
I swiftly and forcefully crammed the Sympathy card down the front of my top, turned round and beamed, “Hello! These are for you!”